Chicago Remains to Be Seen

Allan Pinkerton

Although Chicago is best known around the world as a city of gangsters, corruption and general lawlessness, it was also the home of one of the first and best known detectives of all time -- Allan Pinkerton

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Pinkerton came to the United States in 1842, at the age of 23, and opened a barrel-making shop in the small town of Dundee, west of Chicago. Pinkerton was an abolitionist, and his shop functioned as a "station" for escaped slaves traveling the Underground Railroad to freedom in the North.

One day while out gathering wood for barrel staves, Pinkerton discovered a gang of counterfeiters making coins in the area. Assisting in the arrest of these men and another gang led first to Pinkerton's appointment as deputy sheriff of Kane County and, later, as Chicago's first full-time detective in 1849. The following year, Pinkerton partnered with Chicago attorney Edward Rucker to form the North-Western Police Agency, later known as the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which is still in operation and is arguably the most famous private detective agency in the world. Pinkerton's business insignia was a wide-open eye with the slogan, "We Never Sleep." The all-seeing eye was the inspiration for the term "private eye."

As the United States expanded in territory, rail transportation increased. And, along with it, train robberies. Pinkerton's agency solved a series of train robberies during the 1850s, bringing Pinkerton into contact with George McClellan, then vice president of the Illinois Central Railroad, and Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln gave McCellan command of the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War -- and eventually all Union forces -- McClellan made Pinkerton his chief of intelligence.

In 1861, while investigating a railway case, Pinkerton uncovered an assassination plot against Lincoln. The conspirators intended to kill Lincoln in Baltimore during a stop on his way to his inauguration. Pinkerton warned Lincoln of the threat, and the president-elect's itinerary was changed so that he passed through the city secretly at night. Lincoln later hired Pinkerton to organize a "secret service" to obtain military information in the Southern states during the Civil War, and to act as his personal bodyguard. The intelligence service was the forerunner of the U.S. Secret Service.

Prior to his service with the Union Army, Pinkerton developed several investigative techniques that are still used today. Among them are "shadowing" (surveillance of a suspect) and "assuming a role" (undercover work).

After the war, in 1865, Pinkerton resumed management of his detective agency. By this time, the U.S. Secret Service had been established to fight counterfeiting. By 1901, its mission included protecting the president.

Though Pinkerton spent most of his life fighting crime and battling criminals, his death didn't come as the result of a shoot-out with thugs or anything else associated with his work. In late June 1884, Pinkerton slipped on a pavement in Chicago and bit his tongue. He didn't seek treatment and the tongue wound became infected, leading to his death on July 1, 1884. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was taken over by his sons, Robert and William. At the time of his death, he was working on a system that would centralize all criminal identification records, a database now maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Pinkerton also wrote a series of short stories and books about his exploits as a detective.

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